Space to grow? Neurological risks of moving to Mars
|Artistic rendition of a human colony on Mars, image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Humans have been venturing into space for over 50 years. Starting in 1961 when the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, by 1969 Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon, and by 1998 the International Space Station had launched its first module. More recently our exploration of space has started to reach new heights, with 2011 seeing the launch of the Mars One company and its mission to produce the first human colony on Mars by 2033.
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Being separated from life on Earth can also have a huge effect on your psyche. Some astronauts experience “break-off” while in space, a term used to describe the feeling of being disconnected from Earth and potentially from reality itself. Other astronauts feel the opposite, a global consciousness and connectedness deemed the “overview effect.” Overall, the experience of traveling into space can wreak havoc on your mental state, and these psychological effects have been noted in astronauts that have spent about six months in space. The colonists traveling to Mars are intending to establish a permanent colony where they will live for the remainder of their lives. No one has ever spent this much time in space before. In fact, the longest consecutive period of time anyone has spent in space is 438 days (a record held by the Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov). As the colonists prepare to spend numerous years living on Mars, we currently cannot know what changes will be wrought on their psyches (though we do have some idea of how specific regions of the brain respond to being in space). Additionally, while the colonists remain on Mars without the intent of returning to their previous lives on Earth, they will not have the opportunity to reset their brains and bodies back to the “normal state” of being on Earth. Whatever mental changes the colonists undergo while en route to and living on Mars will become their new “normal selves” for the rest of their lives.
|Schematic of cosmic radiation coming from the sun and the
protection offered by Earth’s magnetic field. Image courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
In addition to studying the specific effects of radiation on the brain, several studies have compared the brains of astronauts before and after they travel into space. A recent study found that there are significant alterations in gray matter volume after being in space and that these changes are more pronounced in astronauts who have spent longer periods of time in space. Another study performed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) compared the brains of Scott Kelly (who spent nearly one year in space aboard the International Space Station) and his twin brother and retired astronaut, Mark Kelly. The study is still ongoing, but thus far researchers have found altered inflammation and telomere length in samples taken from Scott Kelly after he returned from the Space Station.
|Earth and Mars, image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Mars One recognizes that there are many risks and challenges associated with establishing a Mars colony, including the loss of life and running out of money. They also acknowledge that signing up for a one way trip to Mars is not an easy choice and that creating a Mars colony will be dangerous. To combat this risk, Mars One incorporated a risk analysis protocol into its mission plan that was built with the assistance of individuals with experience at NASA (NASA assesses risk for its space missions using quantitative measures). Mars One also states that its main ethical priority is to offer the Mars colonists as high a quality of life as possible, including the ability to keep in touch with friends and family on Earth, the chance to explore Mars and expand the colony once they arrive, and the promise that more colonists will be emigrating to Mars every two years to keep the colony expanding. It is also important to note that Mars One is not the only group planning on going to Mars in the coming decades. NASA is planning on a journey to Mars by the 2030s and started working on a new rocket last summer that will carry passengers into deep space.
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Want to cite this post?
Hoffman, C. (2017). Space to grow? Neurological risks of moving to Mars. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/02/space-to-grow-neurological-risks-of.html